Against cancer in microgravity

Using the microgravity environment aboard the International Space Station, scientists have designed a process of microencapsulation of concentrated anti-cancer drugs . With specific delivery systems could ensure a slow and localized release. A type of therapy that could potentially revolutionize the treatment of cancer.

MEPS in microgravity


The oil (in blue) contains a traceable marker with ultrasound and CT scan to allow doctors to follow the microcapsules (in brown) during conveyance to the tumor mass. The semi-permeable outer skin has the physical ability to release the drug slowly.

The systematic and invasive treatments for cancer are a necessary evil for many people with complex diagnosis. These patients tolerate therapy with devastating side effects, including nausea, immune deficiencies, hair loss and organ failure, in the hope of eradicating the tumor tissues that are hosted by their bodies . If treatments were targeted to the tumor tissue of each patient, doctors would have an alternative to reduce the cycles of chemotherapy and radiotherapy. A search that began in space seems to provide some new elements in this regard.

Using the microgravity environment aboard the International Space Station, a microencapsulation process is capable of producing biodegradable and tiny spheres containing specific combinations of anticancer drugs focused. Thanks to special needles, doctors may inject microcapsules on specific areas in the patient and treat the damaged tissue. One type of targeted therapy that can potentially revolutionize the treatment of cancer.

“Producing these microcapsules on Earth is more complicated because of the different densities of liquids that generate a natural stratification. In space however, in the absence of gravity there is no sedimentation and everything takes a spherical shape, “says Dennis Morrison, a former NASA man responsible for the Microencapsulation -II Electrostatic Processing System (MEPS -II) and currently director of research and development for the microencapsulation to NuVue Therapeutics Incorporation.


Dr. Morrison with MEPS flight hardware ready to pack for the International Space Station UF-2 mission.

Source: NASA

The study MEPS in microgravity is able to mix two liquids together that they would not be ever on Earth (80 % water and 20 % oil), creating microcapsules containing liquid, separated by a semipermeable outer membrane. It sounds like a recipe for making a good alternative instead of mayonnaise could be a new way of preparing medications.


Single cell microencapsulation.

Source: NASA

Once you have defined the parameters that were used to replicate the experiment in Earth has managed to produce the same type of microcapsules . ” The space was our teacher ,” says Morrison. The MEPS -II technology has been tested on the ISS in 2002, but the difficulties in the recovery of funds could help fund new clinical trials has slowed down the process of experimentation. The system MEPS now passes to the FDA , the Food and Drug Administration . Once approved may be employed in medical use , including the treatment of cancer.

The research carried out on the ISS led to 13 patents and two still awaiting verification . NuVue for its part has already designed devices help convey the microcapsules and monitor the administration by ultrasound.

The use of biopsy needles allows a targeted release on tumor mass. The direct conveyance of drugs reduces typical side effects of chemotherapy. On the other hand, the microcapsules may also contain combinations of drugs tailored to each patient, and can be designed for a gradual release that provides longer-lasting therapeutic effects.

In laboratory tests, microcapsules containing anticancer drugs were injected directly into a human prostate and lung tumors in animal models. These models were then injected even following cryotherapy. And the microcapsules injected directly into the tumor shows an improvement of the therapeutic results and inhibition of tumor growth.

Although the work of Morrison has focused primarily on prostate and lung cancer, the study points to breast cancer in the process of FDA approval. It will take some years to get approval to use the microcapsules as an option for the treatment of cancer, while for the new devices of drug administration is already planning a preclinical study (2015).

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